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The Church’s work with prostitutes in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The Christian charity took on the most diverse forms in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Church and lay benefactors opened and supported works to help the ill, orphans, the elderly, slaves … And those who had often been forced from childhood to a humiliating life, prostitutes, could not be left out.

There were preachers who were especially dedicated to taking the Gospel to these women in the squares and streets. Those who repented of their sins were welcomed into religious congregations or abbeys founded especially for them. These foster homes were very numerous across Europe.

But religious life was not the only way pointed out by the Church to get prostitutes back on track: marriage was also a great solution.

In 1198, Pope Innocent III issued a decree determining that every godly man who marries a prostitute to give him an honorable life would have his sins fully remedied (learn more in Daniel-Rops’ Church of the Crusades and Cathedrals). It was a plenary indulgence, that is, the cancellation of the temporal penalties due for the sins committed up to that moment.

In the 16th century, St. Ignatius of Loyola, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, founded the Casa de Santa Marta (House of St. Martha) in Rome, to welcome prostitutes. He also established another institution to accommodate poor maidens, precisely to prevent these girls from being exposed to any abuse or enticement to prostitution.

Note that there was also considerable preventive work. The medieval and Renaissance Church prevented countless girls from being thrown into prostitution. After all, convents and monasteries were always ready to give shelter to abandoned children, who would otherwise die of hunger or be exploited by sex traders.

The largest children’s homes were run by the Brothers of the Order of the Holy Spirit or by the Hospitallers of Jerusalem. When they reached adulthood, the boys were helped to look for work and the girls were given a dowry for their marriage, if they did not want to be nuns.



It is very shocking to compare the Catholic Church’s merciful and welcoming stance with prostitutes and the treatment of them in Geneva, while Protestant reformer John Calvin was at the head of the local church.

Prostitutes detained in Geneva were immediately drowned in the Rhone, without mercy (article “Calvin at Geneva” by Mark Pattison. The Westminster Review, London, vol. LXX).

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